- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

Admit it. We’ve regrettably all uttered these same meaningless statements at some time or another: “I could choke the life out of …,” or “I could beat the [blank] out of …,” or “I could just shoot …” so-and-so for such-and-such. However, most of us are not public figures voicing our private anger and frustration about public issues in public places.

Still, I’m willing to give Kendel Ehrlich, Maryland’s first lady, a pat on the wrist and a gracious pass for saying she could “just shoot Britney Spears.” Let’s not shoot the messenger. Rather, let’s listen to her important message.

After all, how many would have given even a passing reference to Mrs. Ehrlich’s fiery speech unless the bare-bellied Britney Spears was the target? Mrs. Ehrlich, a former prosecutor and public defender who has dealt with both sides of the issue, is rightly fired up, not so much about Miss Spears as about the rising number of domestic violence cases.

Surely, the governor’s wife should be none too pleased with the sex-crazed images of pop icons that can set up impressionable girls to be victimized. (In case you missed it, I had to shake my head when I opened up a newspaper last month to a photograph of the sweaty Miss Spears having her pants taken down by two male dancers during her performance at the outlandish NFL extravaganza on the Mall.)

To tell the truth, Mrs. E., “I’m feelin’ you, my sista.” In fact, I’m actually more annoyed by the foolish frenzy created by Mrs. Ehrlich’s slip of the lip while taking aim at Miss Spears’ public persona during a speech at a domestic violence conference at Hood College in Frederick, Md., on Oct. 3. The frenzy misses the mark.

Mrs. Ehrlich, who announced days later that she is expecting a second baby, knows it’s rough trying to raise responsible, respectful children today while competing with compromising messages courtesy of gyrating hoochie-mama singers, gansta rappers, bang-bang-shoot-‘em-up video games and grown-up greedy corporate pirates and raiders. Before I go off on that tangent about escalating violence and lewdness in American culture, let me get back to the insidious violence about which Mrs. Ehrlich was speaking.

Mrs. Ehrlich was not available for comment yesterday, but her spokeswoman, Meghann Siwinski, said Maryland’s first lady “is very concerned” because nearly 21,000 domestic violence cases were reported in Maryland in 2001. But “an alarming statistic is that only 25 percent of all domestic violence cases are even reported to begin with.”

Nationally, one in four women in the nation reports that they have been hit by a husband or boyfriend at least once in their lives. The governor’s wife intends to make education and substance abuse prevention and treatment her cornerstone projects because 30 percent of all domestic violence cases involve the use of alcohol or drugs either by the perpetrator or the victim, Ms. Siwinski said.

Before the Britney barrage, Mrs. Ehrlich made the important point that women need to be able to care for themselves so they are less likely to subject themselves or their children to abusive, life-threatening living arrangements for sustenance and survival.

Studies indicate that a major reason women, particularly mothers, remain in abusive homes is for financial security. According to her spokeswoman, Mrs. Ehrlich also was trying to convey her frustration (during her professional experiences) with the problem of getting women to testify against their abusers.

She suggested that if women and girls had better role models they might gain the confidence they need if put in that situation to be empowered to leave and to testify.

Indeed, we’ve done a poor job of teaching girls — and boys — that they can be worthy, self-sufficient and productive people without a partner. Peer pressure is awesome, but we have to do a better job of conveying the idea that you do not have to “fit in” with the “got-it-going-on” crowd by doing anything you, as a unique individual, are uncomfortable with. Saying “no” to whomever for whatever, whenever is all right, and you’ll be all right.

To get out the message about domestic violence this month, several organizations are undertaking public service campaigns such as the “No More Tour,” bus tour and film festival sponsored by Liz Claiborne, Marie Claire and Polaroid, which made stops in Alexandria and Georgetown two weeks ago.

Prince George’s County officials, particularly State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, are taking the lead in providing special resources to reduce domestic violence.

“It’s ludicrous that we have more shelter for pets than people,” Mr. Ivey said during Project Sunday at county churches, and at another statewide domestic violence conference at Prince George’s Community College last week. There are only 20 emergency beds for domestic-violence victims in the county.

His office successfully sought to create a domestic violence court; it began operation Oct. 1. And he recently assigned a full-time senior prosecutor and investigator to handle domestic violence cases only.

Debra Williams, the sister of the Ernestine Bunn Dyson — an Oxon Hill mother killed in March by her estranged husband — spearheaded Project Sunday last weekend in which women were encouraged to seek refuge in county churches. She also established the Ernestine Fund to which the Rev. C. Anthony Muse’s Church of the Arc donated $500 and announced that he will open its sanctuary to domestic-violence victims.

Domestic violence is not as sexy news as Britney being speared, but this mental, verbal and physical assault and abuse is killing and maiming countless women and wreaking havoc on untold numbers of families and children.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and Maryland officials, including Mrs. Ehrlich, are to be commended, not condemned, for their efforts to bring this issue out from behind closed doors.

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